Skip to main content

We need to hold people to be more accountable…or do we?

16646459, ciomidmarket slideshow
google image 2013

When I work with senior leadership teams I’ll often hear; ‘We need to hold people more accountable around here…’

Behind these declarations are good intentions.  We want people to deliver on their commitments and to do so without us having to follow up.  We vow to ‘catch’ them being ‘unaccountable’ and introduce consequences such as performance management, pay hold backs, or some other threat.

The irony is, these tactics can actually undermine accountability! Here’s what I mean.

When we try to hold others accountable – it can land as micromanaging, a lack of trust, or as a threat.  This tends to erode motivation.  The latest research in neuro science1 shows it can actually shut down creativity and resourcefulness.  You’re actually diminishing their ability to get it done.


True accountability is a choice.  I see something as so important, that I choose to get it done no matter what! Like a parent who provides food and shelter for their child day after day.  The drive comes from inside;  a value or benefit that’s important to me.

So how do you get people to be more dependable and deliver on their commitments?

1/ Tap into what is most important to them.  If you don’t already know – ask!

‘Janine, I’m curious, what’s one thing that’s really important to…?’

2/ When you set a goal, talk about the benefit to them to deliver on this goal. If you make an authentic connection between what you want and what they want, you’re helping them to achieve their goals.  They’re more likely to be motivated from inside.

‘Janine, I know you want to have a senior sales role one day and writing a compelling proposal promptly is a skill that the best sales people in the world have mastered.’

In my experience most people are doing the best they can.  When you see someone who is not delivering on a promise, whether a colleague, friend or family, ask yourself:

  • Are they clear on what’s expected? (Did I take the time to explain what I want?)
  • Have they had meaningful feedback?  (have I told them what’s working, what’s not)
  • Have they had my help? (Have I offered ideas or support in some way?)

In his book Drive2, Daniel Pink refers to the surprising truth that what motivates most people is the desire to make a difference (purpose), to improve their abilities (mastery), and to have the opportunity to use their own decision making and initiative (autonomy) .

So instead of wanting to hold someone accountable, strive to tap into their drive.

Want to learn more?  Give us a call at 1 855 524-5900 or click here .

1 David Rock, SCARF – A brain based model for collaborating with and influencing people.

2 Daniel Pink, DRIVE (2009), Penguin Books Ltd.


  • Good one – that’s a twist on an old objective I hadn’t thought about. My favourite line “In my experience most people are doing the best they can.”

    • Thanks Hugh. I’m pretty sure I first heard the ‘people are doing the best they can’ from an old Anthony Robbins tape I had listened to – but something about it resonated with me – the whole quote was more like ‘we’re all doing the best we can, with what we have, at the time’.
      what a powerful assumption to start with, in any relationship. Thanks Hugh.

  • Matt – this is an excellent post. I do hear this a lot, and what you wrote makes the reader think about how they’re approaching such a situation. Well done.

    • Thanks Wendy. Yes, for me it’s not about asking a leader to abandoned their expectations but to think more purposefully about the situation, and make a subtle change to their approach.

  • Great post and well written Matt! I’ve always found that the better I understand what motivates and drives others, the more effectively I can help align their personal goals with those of the team or organization. I think the science and research around mastery is fascinating.

    • Thanks Dale. I know you’ve lead whole departments let alone teams and individuals. When you say Mastery, I think of George Leonard, but what comes to mind for you?

Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

How to Motivate Employees in 10 Minutes or Less

Get your free eBook when you subscribe to my newsletter.